The Montreal Canadiens may face a tough decision that looms in the near future. Eric Engels penned a piece on Sportsnet about the harsh reality that the team may be facing in the not-so-distant future concerning one of the team’s new defenders.
Montreal Canadiens defenseman Mike Matheson continues to near a return. As Engels noted, he is still in a non-contact jersey but continues to make strides toward getting back to 100% and being able to return to the Habs lineup.
As much as Arber Xhekaj has become a fan favorite, his first stint in the NHL may be coming to an end; and that is okay. Nicknamed “Wi-Fi” because of his peculiar last name, Xhekaj has taken the Habs defense core by storm.
After being signed away from a job at Costco, the 21-year-old opted to make the jump from the OHL to join the Habs organization. He ultimately impressed this summer and broke camp with the Habs. However, the feel-good story might come to an end… for now.
Montreal Canadiens are going to have their hand forced soon.
Xhekaj has been a solid addition to the Habs for the presence he brings to the table. The 6-foot-3, 204-pound defender is not afraid to play physically. He craves that physicality and will not shy away from finishing his check or using his body.
The Habs have also seen Xhekaj step up for his teammates and drop the gloves as needed. He’s done everything the Habs have asked, but the unfortunate reality is that he may be heading down to the AHL once Matheson returns.
Xhekaj has not been in the wrong. Sure there are things he can improve upon and continue developing, but he has been a solid addition, being a pleasant surprise in 2022-23 for this Habs team.
But Matheson will get his reps and try to help sure up the team’s defense core and take them from a thin group to a mediocre one. With Matheson nearing a return, someone has to be the odd man out, as Engels notes that Xhekaj is the likely option to go to Laval.
In 15 games played for the Habs in 2022-23, Xhekaj has scored twice and added two assists for four total points. He’s done a lot of things right and also made mistakes. But the rookie is learning and keeps improving and making strides in the right direction.
Sending him to Laval may be a tough thing for the confidence, but Xhekaj is saying all the right stuff; as mentioned in Engels’s piece, he notes that Xhekaj keeps a level head and continues to focus on what he can control.
If Xhekaj does get demoted to Laval, he will have the chance to play big minutes, reflect on what he’s learned in his first NHL stint, and hopefully come back to the Habs eventually and be a better player.
No one wants to get demoted, but Xhekaj knows it’s part of the business. Matheson returning might force the Habs’ hand, and Xhekaj is likely the casualty of it.